Sea change in climate journalism: The Guardian and the D-word

As we all know, the debate over global warming is contentious, often vitrolic. Labels are often applied by both sides. One the most distasteful labels is “denier”. I’m pleased to report that the UK paper The Guardian has taken on this issue headfirst.

In a recent email exchange with the Guardian’s James Randerson, where he discussed an outreach opportunity to climate skeptics via a series of stories on the Guardian website, I raised the issue with him.

From: “Anthony Watts <xxx@xxxx.xxx>

Date: Friday, February 19, 2010 11:13 AM

To: “James Randerson” <xxxx@xxxxx.xxx.xx>

Subject: Re: Guardian: CRU emails

Hello James,

Thanks for the response.

If the Guardian truly wishes to engage climate skeptics, I do have a piece of advice that will help tear down walls. Get the newspaper to go on record that they will never again use the label “deniers” in headlines or articles.

For example:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/cif-green/2010/feb/15/climate-science-ipcc-sceptics

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/09/climate-change-deniers

And there are many others I could cite.

That simple, single act, recognizing that the term is erroneous, distasteful due to its holocaust denier connotation, and unrepresentative of the position on climate change of many who simply want the science to be right  and reasonable solutions enacted would be a watershed event in mending fences.

There’s no downside for the Guardian to do so that I can envision. It would  elevate the paper’s credibility in the eyes of many. The Guardian can lead  by example here.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best Regards,

Anthony Watts

Yesterday I received an email from him. It is my impression that he sent the suggestion out to other staff members and there was a discussion about it, which was written about here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/climate-change-scepticism-style-guide

I excerpt the relevant paragraphs here, highlight mine:

We have been discussing such terminology, and some of my colleagues have suggested that Guardian style might be amended to stop referring to “climate change deniers” in favour of, perhaps, “climate sceptics”.

The editor of our environment website explains: “The former has nasty connotations with Holocaust denial and tends to polarise debate. On the other hand there are some who are literally in denial about the evidence. Also, some are reluctant to lend the honourable tradition of scepticism to people who may not be truly ‘sceptical’ about the science.” We might help to promote a more constructive debate, however, by being “as explicit as possible about what we are talking about when we use the term sceptic”.

Most if not all of the environment team – who, after all, are the ones at the sharp end – now favour stopping the use of denier or denialist (which is not, in fact, a word) in news stories, if not opinion pieces.

The Guardian’s environment editor argues: “Sceptics have valid points and we should take them seriously and respect them.” To call such people deniers “is just demeaning and builds differences”. One of his colleagues says he generally favours sceptic for news stories, “but let people use ‘deniers’ in comment pieces should they see fit. The ‘sceptics’ label is almost too generous a badge as very few are genuinely sceptical about the science but I think we have to accept the name is now common parlance.”

I applaud the editorial staff at the Guardian for taking this step, and even more so for having the courage to put it to print. I thank James Randerson for bringing the subject to discussion. I hope that other editorial staff and news outlets will take note of this event.

On that note let me say that we could all (and that includes me) benefit from the dialing back of the use of labels, and we should focus on the issues before us. There’s really nothing positive or factual to be gained from such labeling.

I call on readers of WUWT to reciprocate this gesture by The Guardian by refraining from labeling others they may disagree with here and at other web forums.

Let’s all dial back and treat others with the same respect in conversation as you might treat dinner guests having a discussion at home.

My position has been that there is no debate that the earth has warmed over the past 100+ years, but that the magnitude of the measured warming and the cause(s) remain in debate. The question of whether such warming is beneficial or detrimental depends on who you ask. I’ll also point out that it took our modern society about 150 years of science and technology advances to get where we are now. Doing it cleaner and better won’t be an overnight solution either.

There are also other pressing environmental issues which have been swallowed whole by the maelstrom of this worldwide climate debate and are getting the short shrift. The sooner we can settle it, the sooner we can get on to solving those.

UPDATE:

In related news, the nastiness of debate caused one long time blogger to close his discussion forum.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article7043753.ece

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H.R.

“[…] My position has been that there is no debate that the earth has warmed over the past 100+ years, but that the magnitude of the measured warming and the cause(s) remain in debate. […]”
Yea, verily.

Well said Anthony. I believe everyone would be better served if the level of anger and name calling was lowered to a level where everyone could discuss the topics in mixed sitting again. The “climate wars” have lived up to their name.
Jack

Rhys Jaggar

Well said, well done and take a bow, Mr Watts. And the Guardian too.

Steve M. from TN

Hear hear!
Now if all newspapers and blogs would follow, maybe we could get something done.

Steve Goddard

I never understood how someone could “deny” the future as predicted by a computer model.
Are low-paid government computer programmers and climate scientists supposed to be some sort of gods who know the future?
“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”
G K Chesterton

Sean Peake

It’s too light here to see how many moons are in the sky but that is an important concession—I doubt the ardent supports of the other side will refrain, though.
REPLY: Perhaps, but now there exists a lead by example reference that you can point them to. – Anthony

Bill Liss

Very classy move. Hopefully they will not…now and then…spell it incorrectly by using septic!

latitude

Dang
Nothing has hurt their “cause” more than words…..
…..and now they are going to stop using the words that do the most damage.

Philhippos

I entirely agree with the need for both sides to eliminate abuse and ad hominem attacks because at some point, now looking sooner than later, important people in politics and finance will realise that they have been being led up the garden path by AGW scare.
Experience tells us that few people like to admit that they were mistaken let alone hoodwinked. The more senior and public the positions of those being asked to agree that they were misled the less likely they are agree to make the admission. I have seen large corporations spend literally millions to ‘protect’ the reputations of senior directors so know of what I speak.
Trained negotiators know the vital importance of providing the potential mind-changer with a ladder that allows them to emerge from the hole they were in not looking as if they have been buried in ordure and smelling of it as well.
Being polite but absolutely firm with the opposition is without doubt the right policy to pursue henceforth. Keep to the moral high ground.

“and unrepresentative of the position on climate change of many who simply want the science to be right ”
Very good !!!!!
It is that simple !!!

Ian E

There is a petition to ask Brown to stop describing ‘sceptics’ as climate change deniers. (See http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Deniers/ ). Perhaps the Guardian could mention this petition in future articles?
p.s. to Messers Brown and Milliband : – Flat-Earthers is not very voter-friendly either?!

Aaron Jarboe

I’m very pleased to see this. Sometimes it’s hard to even believe that reasonable people continue to exist, and the fact that the Guardian has been introspective and logical about this give me hope for mankind. 🙂

wilt

Well done, both of you (Mr Watts and The Guardian). I really hope that the “extremists” on both sides will moderate their language, avoid personal attacks, and focus on the real issues as they are outlined by Mr Watts in his last two paragraphs.

Brian G Valentine

Someone in the Washington Post today heeded your guidance, evidently – calling me a “denialist” instead.
Neither myself not Richard Lindzen, object to being labeled a “denier”
The term has become associated with a certain set of convictions that, to my understanding, characterize mine

Allen C

That is a wonderful move!!
I have to wonder how he knows that “very few are genuinely sceptical”? Has a poll been taken? Has someone counted?

Sean Peake

Ian E: Quite right, though I’d rather be called a flat earther than be flat headed (or with a low sloping forehead at minimum) like the many rabid politicians. The former is kind of quaint and endearing, the latter, well.. says it all.

Bill Parsons

some of my colleagues have suggested that Guardian style might be amended to stop referring to “climate change deniers” in favour of, perhaps, “climate sceptics”.

Minimal acknowledgement of the dignity of the skeptical view seems better than none at all, even if its reluctant and half-hearted in tone, as if he were being asked to swallow some kind of bitter medicine. What it says to me is that your (very reasonable) suggestion is one he can no longer afford to ignore.
Keep up the good work Anthony.

Jeremy

FTA: “The ’sceptics’ label is almost too generous a badge as very few are genuinely sceptical about the science but I think we have to accept the name is now common parlance.”
Only now is skeptic in the common parlance? Funny, I thought the term came from waay back in the day of Pyrrho of Elis in ancient Greece referring to something known as “knowledgeable ignorance” which essentially means having an accurate grasp of reality through knowing what is not known.
In fact, it should really be an embarrassment to anyone who accepts the CAGW line that the word skeptic is used to describe those who disagree with them, it’s like admitting their own failure to grasp reality.

Philip Richens

It is very pleasing to see a little bit of good sense over at least this one. Reading through the Guardian article you linked, they still seem to have a very strange attitude that leaves me uncomfortably feeling that this is rather a hollow gesture.
“They describe themselves as sceptics, but this is plainly wrong, as they will believe any old rubbish that suits their cause.”
“Rather than opening itself to the charge of denigrating people for their beliefs…”
“The ‘sceptics’ label is almost too generous a badge as very few are genuinely sceptical about the science but I think we have to accept the name is now common parlance.”
Frankly, I’ve seen as much utter nonsense from the Guardian’s environment correspondents as I ever have in sceptic blogs. Anthony’s position seems pretty unassailable to me, and although well done the Guardian for agreeing to avoid the gross insults, I think they would do even better to try to approach the issue in a more inclusive and a less patronising manner.

jorgekafkazar

Kudos to The Guardian! And to Anthony Watts for pointing out an opportunity for The Guardian to progress.

Mr. Watts, I could fill many pages with passionate and substantiated arguments reflecting huge moral and logical problems related to the “mutual respect” approach toward those who knowingly commit fraud and legislate taxation on the basis of ideological propaganda in their unscrupulous pursuit of money and power.
It would suffice to say this, with all my respect toward you, personally:
I don’t invite to dinner those who regularly robbed me, deceived me, and insulted me.
No, sir.

Mark, Edinburgh

Mr. Watts and @Rhys Jagger 11.00.39
You should be aware that Guardian comments columns are heavily censored.
In particular they are careful to control informed and detailed sceptical comment.
Access is simply denied to commentators like “Bishop Hill”. I’m also barred possibly because my email address is interpreted as a paid fossil fuel industry lobbyist (incorrectly as it happens) .
When the Guardian lifts its censorship, reveals how many sceptics they have barred and apologise, then maybe they can take a bow. Not until.
REPLY: Let’s start with small steps first. -A

Anoneumouse

Oh gosh, you mean I have to be respectful to my dinner guests

Booty

I can see the headlines now:
“Climate Change Dis-believers Cry Foul Over the Use of the Word Denier”
🙁

Pascvaks

The Media will publish/air/show what the Politicians say. The Politicians will read/listen/watch what the Media publishes/airs/shows. The People are the last to be seen/heard/noticed by the Media and Politicians but they drive the whole mess. Ain’t life a beach?

tangoactual

Agreed. I do not deny that the climate has warmed. I am skeptical about the “proof” that it is man-made and will result in catastrophic consequences. Especially in the face of natural climate shifts before mankind was even capable of widespread environmental impact.
So now if the two sides could agree to examine and clarify the bits we diverge on and leave politics behind we might all learn something new.

Dave Aschim

As always, you set a fine example of not just tireless inquiry but behavior. Your example has helped me change my own tone (admittedly a work in progress!) in these debates. With daily outrage bombarding me, I can never hear often enough that I should take a deep breath and focus on the issues at hand. It’s easy for me to get side-tracked questioning other’s motivation, especially when it seems to be malicious. But motivations are very difficult to know with certainty, that’s why dealing with content is more productive.
Putting aside the emotions of guessing other’s motivation and focusing on content tests the character. That is why role models are useful to remind us how we aspire to behave. Dialing back is an important reminder for everyone and it is doubly important during the investigation of the scientists at the center of these controversies. If more investigations are to take place, a calm, reasoned and dispassionate climate will be necessary.

oakwood

This is great news and a great relief. I am a life-long Guardian reader, and have been in line with most of its views. I am also a scientist and environmentalist. Therefore, I have found it bizaar to be lumped with the accusations of ‘right wing, head-in-the-sand denier. The vitriol by many Guardian commentators against sceptics has been astounding. Let’s see how it goes. It will be interesting to see if George Moniot complies with this policy.

stephen richards

I am not inclined to forgive and forget the past activities of the Grauniad. They knew all along what they were doing. Their derisive remarks against well qualified scientists, many times more knowledgeable than them, were always unacceptable and against all principles of good, impartial journalism.
They should just resign or better still close the journal altogether. I despise people of this type who deliberately denegrate professional scientists for their own political beliefs. While I congratulate Anthony for his ability to forgive and work with these very decietful individuals I wouldn’t trust them any further than I could throw them.
Their newspaper is in grave financial danger and remains solvent only because of Autotrader which they are currently advertising for all they are worth. No doubt for good reason. They must be desperate if they must turn away from their beliefs, beliefs they have held and enforced for many years.

I believe this is a step in the right direction BUT, I do take issue with this…
“The ’sceptics’ label is almost too generous a badge as very few are genuinely sceptical about the science but I think we have to accept the name is now common parlance.”
how would they know that my (or any persons) skepticism is not genuine?

tony

At least they did not change the reference to environmentally challanged.

Dillon Allen

Thanks for engaging with the media Anthony. Being able to viciously debate a topic with respect between the two parties is absolutely necessary if we are to step back from the brink and really figure out what, if any, impact we are having on our planet.
RE – Ian E (11:07:45) : p.s. to Messers Brown and Milliband : – Flat-Earthers is not very voter-friendly either?!
I have always found flat-earthers one of the most ironic labels. Is it true that I have denied that man is certainly causing global warming? Yes. So denier or denialist (if one likes to make up words) would not be completely inappropriate, it just brings a bad connotation with it. However, as I was taught… the consensus in science was at one time that the earth was flat. Only after some skeptics denied this conventional wisdom, foresook the consensus at great personal discomfort, and made the case did it come to be obvious to the rest of the world that earth was a sphere.

Steve Goddard

I remember a Guardian story from the early 1970s where they stated that Los Alamos, NM was the site of the first A-bomb test.
I suspect that most of the residents living there would have “denied” the accuracy of that story. You can “deny” the past, but you can’t “deny” a future which has not yet happened.

zt

I agree that name calling is not good.
I am surprised, though, that these environmental journalists are so happy to go on record about their bias that ‘very few are genuinely sceptical’. This labels the majority of skeptics as disingenuous. This reveals an inherent bias which journalists should not have, and this indicates that the journalists are not aware that skepticism is a desirable quality in science. E.g. the first book on Chemistry (some argue) was called ‘The Skeptical Chemist’ (or some variation on that spelling – Boyle was British after all – and made up the spelling as he went – I am sure that the Guardian loved him) and pointed out some of the the problems with the ‘accepted’ ‘theories’ of the day.
Here’s the pertinent sentence:
“The ’sceptics’ label is almost too generous a badge as very few are genuinely sceptical about the science but I think we have to accept the name is now common parlance.”

L Nettles

Heck, I kinda liked being a lonely nutter.

brian

“My position has been that there is no debate that the earth has warmed over the past 100+ years, but that the magnitude of the measured warming and the cause(s) remain in debate.”
Is there a reliable set of raw temperature data that shows the warming over the last 100 years?

Excellent.
An argument does not lose in force, rigour and validity when it is presented in polite terms – the more polite, the more forceful.
Shouters and those who use invectives have already lost the argument.
Sceptics don’t need to shout – the facts speak for themselves.

Kum Dollison

I’m not sure it’s gotten warmer. It hasn’t in Mississippi. Maybe everyone should go to their nearest Rural weather station that has a hundred year history, and find out if it’s warmer where they live. They might be surprised.

intrepid_wanders

So, “Warmer” or “CAGW Alarmist” would be a “Climate Campaigner”? More aggressive types in political organizations (WWF, Greenpeace, etc.) would not be afforded this courtesy, much like the reservation of the denier word for explicit “GW deniers” (Palin, Rush, etc.).
I commend your attempt Anthony, but it is going to be complicated for all sides.
REPLY: Consider what used to be a war zone in northern Ireland over religion. Fiery rhetoric, deaths, bombs, destruction, yet solved today. Yes our issue is complicated, but still one that can be resolved. -A

hunter

There needsto be more and low threshold ways for people who got caught up in the AGW social movement to disentangle themselves from it.
Graciousness from skeptics towards those who are essentially victims of AGW promoters is called for.
Just think of what Joe Romm does, and then do the exact opposite.

Nice job Anthony, now if you can just get them to put the ‘K’ back in skeptic.
I don’t know what to call advocates without using the word though.

AdrianS

Perhaps a more friendly term for “Deniers” would be Heretics ( ha ha).
Not much change in the policies in the UK of Brown, Millibrown, Camerbrown or Clugg, our leading policticians. Its all green and you’d better like it or else.
Dont think I’ll be voting when the UK Genreal Election comes

It’s interesting to see that George Monbiot’s “cut out and keep” denier cards are still available on the Guardian here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/gallery/2009/mar/09/climate-change-deniers-monbiot-cards?picture=344343782
In my opinion, this was one of the low points in Monbiot’s career, but I am glad to see him now taking up some serious journalism, as in his recent piece on the feed-in tariff rip-off for Solar panels in the UK
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/solar-panel-feed-in-tariff

Al Gore's Holy Hologram

Still not going to read the Guardian or even click a link to a Guardian page as long as George Monbiot, co-founder of Respect along with his friend the narcissistic, closet Islamist, bar brawler buddy of Saddam – George Galloway, is still employed by them.

PJB

When Phil Jones denies that he did anything untoward regarding FOI etc., does that qualify?
Seeing a temperature trend that correlated reasonably with the ever-constant rise in CO2 (allowing for the various forcing factors etc.) would tend to show that we might want to look at CO2 as a cause and potential remedy for climate warming (if really desirable).
Seeing model results that can’t predict their own initial conditions leaves me truly “skeptical” as to the value and accuracy of such methods. Knowing that large $um$ are in play concerning the investigation, elaboration and modification of CO2 and it’s climatic effects is another cause for “skepticism”.
That global temperature changes is a given. That the current change is “unusual” is certainly verifiable but only with accurate and reliable raw data.
Being part of the solution means knowing exactly what the problem is.

John Hooper

Mark, Edinburgh (11:20:07) :
Mr. Watts and @Rhys Jagger 11.00.39
You should be aware that Guardian comments columns are heavily censored.
In particular they are careful to control informed and detailed sceptical comment.
Access is simply denied to commentators like “Bishop Hill”. I’m also barred possibly because my email address is interpreted as a paid fossil fuel industry lobbyist (incorrectly as it happens) .

Nonsense. I’m registered with a disposable gmail address and hardly ever have a post censored. No more than any other paper.
Might depend on the columnist though.

kwik

This is not a problem in Norway at ALL. Because nothing is mentioned about all this in the news anyway.
hehe.
Anyway, I think the foreign minister of Norway , mr. Støre should say; Im sorry saying what I said, and for making an alliance with mr. Gore.
And I promise to stop calling them the Carbon Cult!
If they repend.

cmdocker

I think what we are talking here is censorship, a great deal can be gleaned from terminology, sticks n stones.

Lucy

I am not offended by the term “denier”, though it is misapplied. I am more offended by offense over labels. As far as I am concerned, EVERYTHING is open for question. It is when you stop questioning that you become a true denier.

kwik

And by Repend, I mean:
Remove all Carbon tax’es in Norway.Now.